Saturday, 11 January 2014

Morning bliss

My family having departed to their various activities, I find myself in the rare situation of being home alone on a Saturday morning.

So here I am, toasting myself by the fire in my leather armchair, reading, skimming the papers and pottering around the internet. The early morning storm has passed to leave a clear crystal morning seen so seldom since the New Year.

Life is good.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

The book pelican

“A wonderful bird is the Pelican.
His beak can hold more than his belly can.
He can hold in his beak
Enough food for a week!
But I'll be darned if I know how the hellican?”

I'm a real pelican when it comes to books. If I didn't buy another book for five years I would still have plenty to read. There are the gifts, the third choices on three for two offers, those passed on by friends and family, not to mention those impulse buys stimulated by blog reviews.  Amazon certainly has much to answer for.

So, scanning the shelves, it would make good sense to begin the year with some of my many acquisitions. There's plenty to choose from:

Haweswater by Sarah Hall - Having read The Carhullan Army and a collection of short stories, I admire Hall's writing. This book tells the story of the Lakeland village destined to be flooded as a new dam is built. It has the additional attraction of a (relatively) local setting.

The Ladies' Paradise by Zola - Germinal is one of my all time favourite reads with its awful but compelling evocation of miners' lives. I'm intrigued to see how the same author can then turn his skills to a Parisian department store. Then I made the mistake of watching an episode of the BBC adaption of The Paradise which very nearly put me off the book altogether.

Two Caravans by Marina Lewycka - A group of migrant workers spend the summer strawberry picking in Kent.

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan - the Mathematician and I are both  McEwan fans so I hope I'll be forgiven for adding this spy story to his Christmas list.

That's  more than enough to keep me going over the winter months. 

Happy reading!

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Happy New Year and the best intentions

I last posted back in August. Since then I have got a full-time job, visited Munich's Oktoberfest, attempted a MOOC on historical fiction and passed a Shakespeare exam.

The new year seems a good opportunity to get back on track with blogging. In contrast to the lull in this department, my reading has been ticking along nicely. Recent books include Donna Tartt's new novel The Goldfinch and The Winter  Ghosts by Kate Mosse. Now for something completely different I've chosen Neil Gaiman's American Gods. I've never read any Gaiman before, but I like what he says about writing in particular and life in general, so I'm happy to give him a go. I'm all for trying something new this year and books are no exception.

It feels good to be blogging again. Here's wishing you and yours a happy, healthy and prosperous 2014!

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Pure by Andrew Miller

Paris, 1785. An ambitious young engineer is given the task of clearing the Cemetery of Les Innocents. What follows is a remarkable story.

With the help of a group of miners from Valenciennes, the organist from the cemetery's church, a local prostitute and the sexton's granddaughter, the engineer Baratte undertakes this remarkable feat of human endeavour. They excavate mass graves, discover mummified bodies and dismantle the church. The work is exhausting both physically and psychologically. There are other forces at work too. Mysterious graffiti links the engineer's work to growing political tensions in the capital. Change is afoot and not everyone likes it.

Miller takes the fact of the cemetery's clearance and creates a fiction that is horribly compelling. From the opening chapter in Versailles to the scene in the catacomb and the vigil in the church, there is no shortage of excitement. The book is more than a page-turner though. Life in Paris and conditions in the cemetery are vividly described with an almost cinematic effect. The impact of the work on the characters is interesting since superstitions and the power of the imagination play tricks on the mind. The threat of terrors, both real and imagined, is never far away.

Pure is one of the most enjoyable books I've read in a long time.

Monday, 15 July 2013

On cockroaches

The roaches weren't my idea. 'But dad said I could,' my daughter informed me. Oh dear.

I have said no to a number of pets in my time. No to a dog, despite 'dog' mysteriously appearing on numerous Tesco shopping lists. No to a corn snake. No to lizards and even no to a wolverine. It's not that I have anything against pets per se. We do have two cats, one very old and skinny and another big fat tabby, but still the requests came. Sooner or later we had to give in. But Madagascan hissing cockroaches?

MHCs are not as easy to get hold of as one might imagine. In the end we settle for purchasing them from ebay. Ten of them. Various sizes. I just wish I'd said to the postman when I signed for the parcel 'Ah excellent! The cockroaches have arrived.'

It seems that cockroaches travel well by post and never has such tender loving care been lavished on such undesirable creatures. In fact, despite the protestations of friends and family, it turns out that they are rather...I was going to say cute but you might not believe me. Interesting then? MHCs grow to about 8cm in length, but only the adults 'hiss' by forcing air through spiracles on their abdomen. It turns out we have thirteen rather than ten. Or at least we think so. They are nocturnal and rather secretive so not the easiest creatures to count. They're not the easiest to tell apart either, making naming them rather problematic. We've settled for calling the smallest ones 'Jenkins'. Jenkins is the name given to the boy in any tale of mischief from The Mathematician's school. Medium-sized ones are known as BDB for reasons that only my son can explain. The largest one has already shed its skin and is known as 'Butterbean' for its astonishing whiteness in the first few hours after it moulted.

My daughter is away for a week at RAF camp on Anglesey so the roaches have already become our responsibility. I've had a couple of messages from her already. 'How are you?' she asks, but I know this is code for 'How are the roaches?' They are very well looked after, I tell her, with a choice selection of fish food and fresh fruit. I even bought a lettuce especially.

My daughter's hoping to breed them, so if you'd like a few just let us know. Don't all rush at once...

Isn't he/she handsome?

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Squeezing the orange

I often turn on Radio 4 halfway through an interview and spend the rest of the programme trying to work out the identity of the interviewee. I had no such trouble when I heard the distinctive voice of Henry Blofeld. For those of you who don't know him, he's a cricket commentator on Test Match Special which I guess is one of those broadcasts you either love or hate. I can overcome my irrational northern dislike of plummy private school accents for Blofeld because I find him so entertaining. He can make interesting conversation out of nothing at all. It's a gift I wish I shared. Anyway, on this occasion he was talking about his philosophy of 'squeezing the orange', that is making the most of each and every day.

The Curate's Egg family have certainly been squeezing their oranges recently. Numerous cricket matches have taken us from Carlisle to the darkest depths of Lancashire. Add to this a swimming gala, a football tournament and a moonlight walk in aid of a local hospice and you start to get the idea. The Mathematician took his class on an outward bounds trip last week and sits his Open University maths exam this Thursday. I'm knackered just thinking about it all.

But there have been some relaxing times too. TM and I spent a weekend in Manchester where I abandoned clothes shopping in favour of books and photography - far more satisfying. The weather was glorious and gave the city a relaxed holiday atmosphere. We revisited some of our old student haunts, including the wonderful Sinclairs pub. It used to be in quite a grotty part of town, a grey nondescript square bordered by a supermarket, but is now a great place to be.

I had a go at some street photography. I love people watching and street photography seems a natural progression, but I'm never quite comfortable about snapping strangers. I took a few shots and then turned my attention to the architecture instead.

The Royal Exchange is one of my favourite Manchester buildings with its intriguing interior mixing the old and the modern. Although there is now a modern theatre 'in the round' inside the building, you can still see the old trading boards:

The sunlit stained glass was stunning.

On Sunday we visited the Manchester Art Gallery. The Gallery of Craft and Design was excellent. I particularly liked Andy Hazell's animated sculptures of domestic life:

I wanted to know what each character was thinking. Surely there must be a short story in there somewhere?

There's so much more I want to show and tell you. There are more photos to be edited and I haven't even begun on the books I've read, but cricket is calling. Unless I get a last-minute text from the Shireshead coach, we're aiming to fit in two cricket matches today so I'd better make that picnic.

This orange will be well and truly squeezed.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry - Rachel Joyce

'The letter that would change everything arrived on a Tuesday. It was an ordinary morning in mid-April that smelled of clean washing and grass cuttings. Harold Fry sat at the breakfast table, freshly shaved, in a clean shirt and tie, with a slice of toast that he wasn't eating. He gazed beyond the kitchen window at the clipped lawn, which was spiked in the middle by Maureen's telescopic washing line, and trapped on all three sides by the neighbours' close-board fencing.'
Harold Fry is an unremarkable man, aged sixty-five and six months into his retirement. One day he receives a letter from an old friend. She tells him she's dying of cancer in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed.  He writes a short inadequate reply and walks to the post box. He walks past the first post box, and past the next, and then, before he knows it, he's resolved to walk the four hundred plus miles to see his friend Queenie in person.

At times both moving and humorous, the novel tells the story of his journey. As Harold walks, he reflects on his friendship with Queenie and his troubled relationships with his wife Maureen and his son David. He starts to believe that by walking to Berwick he can atone for his past mistakes and somehow save Queenie's life.

On the way he suffers terrible physical hardships. He's unfit and not equipped for such a journey, walking in boat shoes and without any equipment or even - heaven forbid - a mobile phone. His wife is not at all impressed, but Harold feels alive in a way he has not felt for years. He encounters a host of unusual characters, from the girl in the garage with her 'happy to help' badge, to the tramp who dances with him in the street. Like Bunyan's pilgrim, Harold learns many lessons on his journey. His brief encounter with a man who tells Harold of his unconventional relationship with a much younger man causes him to reflect:
'The silver-haired gentleman was in truth nothing like the man Harold had first imagined him to be. He was a chap like himself, with a unique pain; and yet there would be no knowing that if you passed him in the street, or sat opposite him in a cafe and did not share his teacake. Harold pictured the gentleman on a station platform, smart in his suit, looking no different from anyone else. It must be the same all over England. People were buying milk, or filling their cars with petrol, or even posting letters. And what no one else knew was the appalling weight of the thing they were carrying inside. The superhuman effort it took sometimes to be normal, and a part of things that appeared both easy and everyday. The loneliness of that. Moved and humbled, he passed his paper napkin.'

Joyce tells the story well, moving between Harold's present hardships and past reflections with ease. Without being particularly deep or challenging, it's a very enjoyable read.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Where to begin?

As I write this I'm sitting in my favourite spot in Caffe Nero with my usual order of diet coke and tuna melt panini. You might be forgiven for thinking I'm taking it easy, with time on my hands. It's an easy mistake to make, I know. Instead, I'm having ONE OF THOSE DAYS. You know the type - those days where no sooner do you start one thing than you remember all the other things you should be doing. I have to remind myself that it's okay to sit here, since writing a blog post is on my list. I've been rather lax of late on the blogging front, but I rather like sitting in a cafe with my notebook, pretending to be one of those writerly types.

So let me tell you about all the things I could and should be doing. At the moment I'm dipping my toe in Shakespeare rather than the full immersion I'd hoped for at the start of the course. My study calendar tells me I should be reading Hamlet - or was that last week? My head's still buzzing from a dynamic youth production at the local Dukes theatre a couple of weeks ago. I have an assignment on Twelfth Night due in a couple of weeks, but I'd rather be reading Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. What's more, there's a Tobacco Factory production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Dukes this week. Twelfth Night is clearly going to have to wait.

On the novel front, this month's book group choice is Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. I've read it a couple of times before, the first being the more disconcerting since I could relate to Esther Greenwood's disturbed state of mind rather more than is healthy. I'm hosting book group this time so it's unlikely I'll be able to wriggle out of reading it again, even allowing for extra coffee making and other hostess duties. Hmmph! Reading's not supposed to be a chore.

I made the mistake of opening one of my birthday gifts, Elizabeth Taylor's Complete Short Stories. I only read the first few pages of 'Hester Lilly' and now I don't want to stop. Taylor's such a subtle and skillful writer that there's so much lies beneath the words on the page. It's a rather long short story so clearly The Bell Jar is going to have to wait too.

All these literary distractions wouldn't be so bad, but with the pace stepping up at work and the cricket season beginning, real life is really getting in the way.

But hey, better to have too much to do than too little.

And at least I can now cross one thing off my list.

Monday, 6 May 2013

It's that time of year again

I have The Mathematician to thank for many things. He's taught me to appreciate curry and a good wine, but most importantly he's introduced me to the game of cricket.

So it's cricket that brings me to Tyldesley on a sunny bank holiday afternoon to watch my son in his first trial for the under 11 Lancashire county team. With a good viewpoint on the boundary, a picnic and a book of Elizabeth Taylor's short stories, life couldn't be better.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

World Book Night

This was my first year as a World Book Night giver. I can certainly recommend the experience. Of the twenty titles available I chose Victoria Hislop's The Island. A young woman discovers the secret history of her great-grandmother Eleni, and her connection to the tiny, deserted island of Spinalonga, Greece's former leper colony. It's a book I enjoyed several years ago, partly for the moving story and also for its sense of place. I gave my copies away in the playground of my son's primary school, some to people I knew and others to complete strangers. It was wonderful to be able to give away something that has given me pleasure and also to enjoy the bookish conversations it provoked. I hope the recipients will enjoy the book as much as I did and pass it on to friends and family.

Whilst I was sitting in Nero's doing battle with an essay on Plutarch and Antony and Cleopatra, a stranger came up to me and offered me a book too. Philippa Gregory's The White Queen tells the story of Elizabeth Woodville, mother of the Princes in the Tower. I've been told it's very good.

When a third of households in the UK don't have books in them and 16% of adults struggle with literacy, World Book Night is a wonderful idea.

You can find this year's list of books here. Which book would you have chosen?

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Book group envy

When The Mathematician told me he was joining a book group I'm ashamed to say I was not entirely encouraging. I'd always thought of book groups as quite feminine affairs. (I realise at this point I risk losing any male readers I might have had). I do apologise for this blatant sexism, but my mental image of bookgroups was a gaggle of middle-aged ladies sipping wine and interspersing book talk with updates on school holidays and living with teenagers. I know - I'm old enough to know better.

Of course, rationally I do realise that book groups come in all shapes and sizes. There's no reason why a glass of shiraz can't be swapped for a pint of real ale or a cup of tea for that matter. Nor is there any reason why family talk can't be replaced by thoughts on the Manchester derby. And now, I must confess, I find myself suffering from book group envy.

Since its inception, the all-male Second Monday Book Group have read the following:

The Psychopath Test - Jon Ronson
From Russia with Love - Ian Fleming
The Outsider - Camus
A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich - Solzhenitsyn
The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy

So why am I envious? Partly for their choice of books. Well, the Camus and Solzhenitsyn at any rate. There's something about the broader canvas - whether political or philsophical - that appeals. It's the pleasure of a conversation that begins with the book itself but then roams far and wide. I'd also like to escape from what seems to have become a comfortable rut of 'women's writing'.Then there's the muscularity of the debate. Only once have the Lancashire Ladies derided someone's book choice, and that was only by accident. The SMBG, by contrast, have no such qualms and tables have been thumped on several occasions.

I'm in a belligerent mood for book group this evening. Lancashire Ladies be warned!

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Unreliable Reader

Thanks to a review by Tales from the Reading Room, I've started reading Nick Hornby's collection of essays entitled The Complete Polysyllabic Spree. Whilst I've enjoyed Hornby's novels, it's his essays that really strike a chord with me. He seems to be my kind of reader. I find myself in agreement with so much of what he says. Not, you understand, in that smug self-satisfied way but rather in agreement with a man who expresses so engagingly many of the thoughts I would have developed if I hadn't been browsing Pinterest or playing that maddeningly addictive Candy Crush. This is the fourth time I've deleted this utterly pointless game from my phone. Let's hope it's the last.

But back to Hornby. The Spree is a collection of pieces he wrote for the Believer magazine. It's quite a refreshing read, not over worthy or too serious, it's 'simply' an account of his reading month by month. One thing reassures me - his lists of 'Books bought' and 'Books read'. It's good to see that I'm not the only one who buys books in a flurry of excitement and then takes months to get round to reading them. Even more reassuring is his second monthly piece which records the month's reading 'unfinished, abandoned, abandoned, unfinished'. I'm glad I'm not the only one who fails to come up with a satisfactory report. This is my long winded way of owning up to my own rather desultory reading over the last few months.

I'm not sure if it is due to a genuine lack of free time or - more likely - that I've been too much of a fidget to apply myself to 'serious' reading. Either way, after such a promising start Les Miserables is back on the shelf where books are seen rather than read. I have redeemed myself slightly by reading Hangover Square from my classics list. I wasn't sure what to make of it at first, but in the end I was glad I'd read it. I'll post a proper review when I have more time.

Having enjoyed Helen Dunmore's The Siege several years ago, I thought I'd give 'Zennor in Darkness' a go. Set in Cornwall during the First World War, it tells the story of a young woman Clare, her cousin who comes home on leave and their friendship with D H Lawrence and his German wife Frieda. As with The Siege this was very readable and perceptive too.

I'm currently reading The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen. I can't say I'm enjoying this one yet. The prose is dense, with every statement and every observation seeming to be qualified. I am enjoying the descriptions of war-time London - it's more of a subtle sense of things than anything concrete - and I hope the effort of reading it will prove worthwhile in the end.

Our book group choice is Joanna Trollope's The Soldier's Wife. I've never read any Trollope, but for some reason I have this irrational feeling I'm not going to like it. Are there any books or authors that make you feel that way?

After the Easter break I'm back to my normal working hours and a more ordered house so I hope I'll be able to get down to some proper reviews.

In the meantime, what have you been reading?

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Shakespeare and performance

I can't explain why I'm addicted to studying. It's certainly not because I have an excess of free time. Nor is it because I have any grand plans for my career. In fact, asking the question 'so what are you actually going to do with your qualification?' is guaranteed to make my blood boil. It must just be for the thrill of it, for those wonderful 'lightbulb' moments when the pieces suddenly fall into place. Of course, you don't need to commit to formal study in order to learn, but there's something about those relentless assignment deadlines and formal exams that motivate in a way that nothing else can.

If I thought that I'd satisfied my desire to study when I graduated last year, I was wrong. I've toyed with Italian and photography, but without a trip to Italy to put both into practice, my enthusisasm soon waned. So here I am again, this time in the thick of an Open University course entitled 'Shakespeare and performance'. I'd looked at this course a few years ago, but did I really want to spend a whole year studying nothing but Shakespeare?

So far so good. There's something quite satisfying about immersing yourself in a particular writer. Then there's the historical context, the performance history and the joy of being able to watch DVDs and swan off to the theatre and call it 'study'. When I was much younger and studying Shakespeare, watching film adaptations always seemed to be cheating - a soft option for those who hadn't actually read the play in the first place. This course positively embraces the performance aspects. I'm sure my sixth form teacher told me there was no 'definitive' way to read a play, but it was only when I saw David Suchet play Iago in the RSC's production of Othello that I truly understood what she meant.

If there is a disadvantage to studying, it's that leisure reading gets pushed to the edges of my days. Consequently, Les Miserables hasn't been opened for a month and even Hangover Square is proceeding at a snail's pace. Still, with an essay to write on Polanski's portrayal of evil in Macbeth, I have other things to keep me happy.

3000 pages of bedtime reading!

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

On local history

Now I am a great believer in keeping busy, but you can have too much of a good thing.

It was the Castle Park Stories project that blew my schedule, but what an adventure it has been! I'm no historian, but as an experience of bringing history to life it was remarkable. Understanding the involvement of one individual in the transatlantic slave trade and their legacy has made history immediate and compelling in a way that I didn't think possible. I've been inspired by the enthusiasm of other researchers too and I can't wait to see what they've come up with when the exhibition opens next week.

There seems to be a huge amount of interest in local history. I've joined a fantastic Facebook group called Lancaster Past and Present where people share their photos, memories and stories of the local area. It's a great way to preserve the history of ordinary people and a great source of story ideas. The challenges of my Castle Park research have made me realise the importance of recording our history. What might seem mundane now could well be fascinating fifty or a hundred years hence.

That's enough on history for now, I have a Shakespeare assignment to do. But more on that next time.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Castle Park Stories

The streets of Lancaster are full of stories. From the first Roman settlement, the founding of the castle in the eleventh century, the city's brief boom as a trading port to the vibrant community today, if walls could speak they'd have so much to tell.

Castle Park, the small area surrounding the castle and Priory, is one of my favourite parts of town. With its steep cobbled streets, fine houses and a quayside lined with converted warehouses, all in the shadow of the castle itself, it doesn't take a giant leap to imagine the folk living there two hundred or even five hundred years ago. So when Litfest put out a call for local residents interested in history, photography or writing to participate in a lottery funded writing project, I didn't take much persuading.

You can find out more about the project here, but essentially we have six weeks to put together an exhibition about the area.

There's so much scope in such a small area that it's hard to know where to start. Around fifty people want to be involved with interests as diverse as slavery, the Quakers, maritime and family history. Already we've heard some marvellous stories such as the banter between the prisoners held in the castle and the factory girls passing by. So the story goes, the young women would take great delight in giving the male prisoners a glimpse of the delights they were missing. Brazen hussies! We heard too of the grammar school boys who were allowed to go on the roof of the church before prayers to get a better view of the castle hangings. Let that be a lesson to you all boys!

I have my first Open University tutor to thank for the particular piece of history I'm hoping to explore. She's an expert in Lancaster's connections with the slave trade, back in Georgian times when Lancaster was one of England's major ports. She took us on a walking tour of the city and in passing pointed out a rather fine house just next to the castle. Built in 1720, it was once home to a successful merchant involved in the slave trade. He had a black female servant, brought to England from the West Indies. I've always wondered how this woman came to be in Lancaster and how it must have felt to live under grey Lancashire skies so far from home.

I've only just started my research, but already I've uncovered the most macabre tale. Truly, truth is stranger than fiction.

I wonder what other stories this fine house has to tell?

20 Castle Park, Lancaster